In Mark Turgeon's post-game presser after his Maryland Terrapins upset the #2/1 Duke Blue Devils, he said he's not even thinking about the NCAA Tournament. "I'm not even going to mention the four-letter word out there," he cautioned, "because we're so far from it."
For a coach of an inconsistent, young team, that's probably a pretty good idea. And it's probably a good idea for his team, too.
But for us, the fans? We have no such burdens, and it's impossible not to keep sneaking peeks at the Terps' tournament resumé - especially now that, with a win over top-five Duke on it, it actually is a resumé. No longer does Maryland just look like a collection of wins over cupcake fodder that got overwhelmed by the ACC. No, beating Duke legitimizes the Terps, and it catapults them back onto the bubble, potentially making the final month of the season as interesting a few weeks of basketball as we've seen since the Greivis Vasquez days.
About three weeks separate us from the start of the ACC Tournament, a stretch in which Maryland will play six games, four coming on the road, two against potential tournament teams. And depending on how the Terrapins close out their season, these next three weeks could move them from the outside of a soft bubble to the inside - uneasily, unsecured, and uncertain, probably, but inside nonetheless.
At the moment, they're undoubtedly on the outside of said bubble, but not by a lot. Joe Lunardi has them in his first four out, just behind the likes of Virginia, Villanova, Cal, and Arizona State, on the same tier as Temple, Kentucky, and Indiana State, each of those three slumping worse than the last. Same deal with Jerry Palm at CBS. Most others agree with that assessment. That means that Maryland probably has some work to do to start looking likely, especially given their strength of schedule, maybe even winning out - but it's looking ever more possible.
There are three sequences to the rest of Maryland's season. The first is the next four games: at Boston College, home to Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Wake Forest. Maryland should be favored in all four contests, but none will be walkover games. BC's lost three of their last four, but they were against Miami (on the road, by twelve), Duke (by only one point), and Florida State (by three, on the road). In other words, BC played those three games much the way Maryland did against the same opposition, which means this trip will be anything but easy. The other three games will be a lot like that one - even Wake Forest took Florida State to the cleaners at home last week, which should serve as a warning shot.
All four are games Maryland should win. But then there have been a lot of games this year that Maryland should've won, only to drop due to a lack of execution, a lack of experience and composure, and in some cases a lack of talent. This is the stretch that very well may prove season-defining: get out unscathed, and the Terps will hold serve while teams around them falter, moving them slowly higher and higher in the committee's eyes, likely into what most would consider "last four in" territory. Going undefeated through this group of four is a big ask for a Maryland team that's been anything but consistent this season, but if the Terps were ever going to make the tournament this year, they'd have needed to grow up sometime. Get out of the next two weeks alive, and I'll start to believe that they've done just that - and that the tournament is a genuine possibility. Until then, though, they're just a stereotypical, bubbly yo-yo team, and rarely do those teams make it in.
Should the Terps emerge from that set of games undefeated, they enter the more difficult portion of the schedule: UNC at home and Virginia on the road. Both are RPI top-100 opponents (and Virginia comes on the road, where a win would count as 1.4 toward the formula) and both are potential tournament teams themselves. I'm less confident about Maryland being favored in those games, given their performances in the first time they met the two teams, but that's what a team growing up is about. If the Terps can somehow win both, they'd certainly graduate from "last four in" status; if they only win one, it'll probably mean they'll need to do some work in the ACC tournament, but they'll be alive. If they drop one of the four that come earlier, they'd probably need to win both to not have a mountain to climb come ACCT time.
Oh, and speaking of the ACC tourney, there's the third phase. Given that Maryland probably needs to win at least four of their last six, and five to be more comfortable, they'll have to be at least a top six seed, with an outside chance to sneak into the top four if they win five or six. (Six would get them there, but that's unlikely; if it's five, Maryland holds the tiebreaker over N.C. State, but things would get more complex if they tied with Virginia or UNC, both of which are possibilities, with UVA being the more likely of the two.) That means they'll likely play on Thursday, but against one of the ACC's bottom-feeder types, Virginia Tech or maybe Wake Forest if they're lucky. Regardless of the exact seeding, their Friday game (assuming they get there) will be against another middle-of-the-road ACC team, a team like a UVA, UNC, or State. There's a chance that just getting through the first game (if they have it) will be enough, but if they find themselves needing another semi-quality win, that'll be the place to get it.
It's too early to get too specific, or to start distributing rooting guides. (If Maryland's alive next week, though, oh they are coming.) In fact, I'd still consider the tournament not to be particularly likely; if they're going to have any chance at all, they're going to have to show that they've matured from their earlier performances, playing more consistently, cutting down on mistakes, showing more composure, and getting more out of Alex Len on a regular basis.
Thing is, sometimes that happens. Teams mature. They grow up. Lights come on. Will it happen at all once? Probably not. Bumps will still happen. But I've mentioned before that so often what a young team like this needs is to see what they can do. That creates belief, belief in the coach and in the system and in themselves. It makes them tougher to break (you saw how they resisted Duke's run in the second half) and more likely to follow the gameplan consistently. Did Alex Len toying with Mason Plumlee open Len's eyes to what he can do to the rest of the ACC? Did it open his teammates' (and coach's) eyes about getting the ball inside consistently? Did Seth Allen's second-half outburst show him just how good he can be at this level? So much of any sport is mentality and belief, and getting games like this usually help in that regard. We knew all along that Maryland was capable of this type of game; now, if they can bring it consistently over the next six contests, they'll be competitive for the tourney.
Nothing's guaranteed. Heck, at this point, nothing's even likely. But it's possible, and that makes for a potentially very fun, potentially very encouraging final few weeks of the season.